Philosophy as an Interpretation of Experience

J. D. Okoh


  1. Introduction
  2. Presupposition behind Smoke-Screened Purity of Philosophical Speculations
  3. The Problem of Experience and Nature
  4. Nature as the Order that Includes Man
  5. Man, an alien to Nature
  6. The Mind and Body Dualism
  7. The Three meanings of experience
  1. Experience in Science
  2. Experience in Philosophy
  3. Mystic experience/extraordinary experience
  1. Experience and philosophical method
  2. Conclusion: The globalization Challenge of Contemporary Philosophy

I have often taught my year one philosophy students that at the beginning of modern civilization (Greek era), there was religious experience. Thereafter philosophy emerged as Socrates not only began to project the role of rational experience but repeatedly asked the question: “Do the gods actually exist?” During the Roman Medieval period, philosophy became the handmaid of theology. And it could be very rightly said that philosophy, as the handmaid of theology, gave birth to scientific experience.
At the one end of world civilization is religious experience and at the other end is science. Philosophy is the “island” between religion and Science. Philosophy throughout the ages has provided the impetus, the creative force and has been the agent of harmonization in the world. Philosophy has always played the role of interpreting both religious and scientific experiences of man. It (Philosophy) has not only begotten all the other bodies of knowledge (Science, Social Science, Arts, etc); like a good mother, philosophy has continued to nourish, nurture and interpret all enquiries about experience and nature.

Presupposition behind Smoke-Screened Purity of Philosophical Speculations
Throughout the dated epoch of philosophical enquiry, the assertion is everywhere accredited that no philosophy is presuppositionless. Whatever the issue (at stake) under consideration, every philosophy is rooted salt-and-pepper existence or else blossoms in the air of already compressed and chartered percepts of cultural experience that conceptually constitute the working axiomatic data of the mental process. Cultural experiences in themselves do not constitute philosophy, although as such, they can lay claim on the front-burner-issues of ethnography or else claim primary positions in the laboratory breakers of the empirical sciences. The conceptual schemes that constitute philosophy through intellectualization cannot be seen on the platform of existence without the ground-files of cultural experience. Hence, radical empiricism as a philosophical claimant as much an arrant hogwash as absolute idealism is an arrant farce.

In ancient Greece, for example, cultural experience flourished. Water, earth, fire and air were as much common place in Ionia as in other parts of the nation. Philosophy however, began only when the common place experiential question of causal relations between existents was raised in the broadest possible context of existence as a unit. Later philosophers have branded the Ionian Philosophers as cosmologists. The nature of the philosophical answers they advanced for empirical questions rather than the questions they raised account for this. Greek religion and mysticism, especially ORPHISM, had their rites and symbols. This religious and mystic experience exerted influence of life and values. In Greece, the mystics and religious figures no claims on being philosophers, nevertheless. Pythagorianism, Stoicism and Platonism would have been characteristically different if not for the trans-valuation and interpretation of the experiential world and values that Greek religion and mysticism first made feasible. Plato’s theory of the universals, for instance, could assume real independent existence in another – worldly plain because Greek mysticism had earlier sown and nurtured the belief in such a spiritual domain of being and had already qualified it exclusively as the apex of being the quintessence of reality. The corrective introduced by Aristotle’s hylomorphism was, of course, generatively informed by traditional Greek medicine in its Psychosomatic understanding and treatment of the human personas an integral whole irrespective of the manifest powers of the mind and the dense materiality of the body.
In the medieval period, Greek religion and mysticism was superseded by Christianity. It was the first wide spread flowering of the Constantinian edicts that ended the underground nursing of Judeo-Christian thought and culture behind the dark screens of the catacombs. Christianity and scholasticism so pervaded medieval life and thought that even the “being” of Aristotelian metaphysics assumes the character, and the functions of the Christian Deity. Proof and counter proof of God’s existence, the nature of man and relation to the world became typical expositions of the content of philosophical investigations.

Modernism with its new form of anti ecclesial skepticism, and unfettered nationalism propelled the course of 20th Century philosophy away from the Theo-ecclesia-centrism. Science, within the context of society, came to the philosophical limelight from which it had been whisked away by excessive theo-ecclesia-centrism. It must be re-stated that any philosophy that is current in an epoch bears negative or positive witness of cumulative human experience religion, social, cultural and scientific, of that epoch. There was “theodicy” of Gottfried Wilheim Von Leibniz and Frederick Nietzsche’s. Thus spoke Zarathaustra and scientism can only be fully appreciated against the background of a socio-cultural experience that informed them. Thus philosophy is at once governed by human experience and challenge to put into operation a principle of organization of all aspects of experience.

The Problem of Experience and Nature
The problem of who man is and his place in nature featured in the Ionian and Platonic philosophies. However, it was the Aristotelian philosophy that first sought to bring about a coherent theory of experience. There are essentially two prominent views of man and nature.
(i) Nature is conceived as an order that includes man.
(ii) Nature is conceived as an alien order from which man is excluded. There
are variations of these two essential views to which we shall return.

Nature as an order that includes man
Aristotle (384 – 322BC) conceived of nature as an organism and man as kits executive part. Nature consists of the whole universe. The ends and the way nature works are all comprehensible to man’s intelligence. Human experience, skills, habits (in short culture) shape the end that nature itself is trying to realize. According to Aristotle, to understand anything is to know the causes of things. And to know the cause is to know the end for which anything is done. Following this line of thought Aristotle postulated four causes:
(a) Final cause: the end for which anything is done.
(b) Material cause: which is that out of which things are made.
(c) Formal cause: which is the shape of design to which something is constructed.
(d) Efficient cause: that which brings the material into form for the sake of the final cause.

Science from the Aristotelian point of view is the result of knowing the cause of things. Aristotle’s conception of science is not control and management of nature but a method of contemplation and understanding of nature. In all this, man’s place in nature is secure. For Aristotle, man is the highest product of nature because man has the ability to turn back and interpret experience and understand all aspects of nature’s workings. Man and nature are part of the same intelligible order of existence.

Man, an alien to Nature
Galileo (1564 – 1642), the Italian astronomer and physicist, stood trial before the Spanish inquisition and was condemned to life imprisonment for his radical publication, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”.

In the novel view of Galileo, nature is a mechanical system devoid of any properties except the qualities of weight, height, number and motion. Only the quantitative and measurable are intelligible and real. All else (including experience and values) fall outside the scope of nature. In other words, human consciousness, which is qualitative and subjective is alien to nature; the laws of man do not operate in nature. Galileo conceived of an order of causes that was entirely different from that used by Aristotle. Nature is to be managed and controlled; this is the objective of science. Nature must he predictable and predicted accurately, this is another objective of science. From the Galilean point of view, the whole nature is not intelligible to man, only the part that is amenable to mathematics. Nature as this delimited, is a blind, lifeless thing that lacks values or intrinsic worth. Thus man is now considered an alien in this world and his life of consciousness is relegated to the background. This radical and decisive step that Galileo took in writing man out of nature has had and continues to have many far-reaching implications for religion, philosophy and science.

The Mind and Body Dualism
Rene Descartes (596 – 1560) is in an effort to meditate between Aristotle and Galileo and create a balance between their opposing concepts of experience and nature. This gave birth to the Cartesian Mind – body dualism. Descartes gave the human mind a prominence as great as the physical work. In the mind, we have man’s conscious life experiences, such as ideas, sensations, hopes, wishes and so on. In the body is located everything that is physical, that is, man’s body, the Galilean particles and the physical nature. In the meantime, Descartes severed all connections between mind and body. Although this picture of human consciousness (mind) as distinct from physical nature (body) did give a measure of dignity to the Galilean man, it still reduced man to physical matter. What man essentially is, his conscious existence, is made to function out of all connection with his body and the lived world. Whereas Galileo separated man from nature, Descartes presented man almost exclusively as mind, his body being merely a part of a meaningless world.

Thanks to John Dewey who in Experience and Nature postulated that experience when intelligently used could be the most means of understanding the realities of nature. “Experience”, according to Dewey, “is not a veil that shuts man off from nature, it is the means of penetrating continually further into the heart of nature” (Dewey 1971: xv). Philosophy, since John Dewey, has become more or less a method and a theory of criticism. In a world of science and technology, the primary aim of philosophy is to constantly provide instruments for criticizing, evaluating and integrating all aspects of human experience – be they, religious, mystical experience, socio-cultural experience and/or scientific experience. Philosophy in the new millennium must bridge the gap between mind-body dichotomy and establish continually between experience and nature.

The Three meanings of Experience
The term experience has three meanings.
(a) Experience in the narrow sense or “Experience in Science”.
(b) Experience in an open sense or “Experience in Philosophy”.
(c) Mystic Experience or “Extra ordinary Experience”.

Experience in Science
In the narrow sense, experience refers to the data that man gathers through the senses, through observation and through experimentation. This experience is equated with the scientific order. Little wonder then that when the empiricist says that all knowledge comes through the senses. It is extolling Scientism or positivistic naturalism. Scientism asserts that experience is the starting point and the terminal end of all knowledge.

A. Experience in Philosophy
Experience as understood in open sense, since the time of Henry Bergson, has come to be synonymous with existence. Experience, from this perspective, is the manifestation of particular activities of our existence. This existential experience constitutes our participation in being, our way of having a part of and taking part in, the being that surrounds us. In the words of Macleau Ponty, “experience designates in a general way the awareness of our existence as an embodied personal liberty which is involved in the world as is called to realize itself in inter-subjectivity”. Understood in the open sense, philosophy becomes the description of experience, as knowledge is itself contained within experience. For the philosopher, experience may indeed be the starting point of knowledge but the conclusion could be based on a metaphysical principle of fact for example, proof for the existence of God may begin from the data of experience but the conclusion that God exists may not be directly verifiable in experience.

Science does not encompass all knowledge and all experience; there are arts, aesthetics, social values and moral life. Science does not have an answer to the world of values.
In a paraphrase of Marleau – Ponty, the scientific “object” therefore represents only one manifestation among much human reason, understood in its widest and existential sense. In this sense, reason is that natural light which is in us, which enables us to give a human meaning to our behaviour, to discover all round us a world full of significance and values and to find in the “other” a centre of initiative and a companion who shares our situation in the world.

B. Mystic Experience/Extra-ordinary Experience
Reports of religious ecstasy, the inspiration of an artist and so-on constitute the merits of mystic experience. On the other hand, the use of psychotherapeutic drugs, herein, etc., brings about experiences that transcend the world. The criterion of inter-subjective testability delimits and separates the scientific experience from the mystic experience. Are both experiences true? Several papers have been written to address the issue, amongst which are, “Mysticism and illogicality” (T. D. Suzuku); “Logic and the Limits of Rationality” (Morris Cohen & Ernest Nagel); “The Objectivity of Mystical Experience” (W. T. Stace).

Experience and Philosophic Method
Plato initiated the philosophic method by postulating the theory of universals. He taught that reality is the object of the mind, the fabric of the intellect rather than the issue of experience. Aristotle postulated a theory of knowledge radically different from that of Plato. For Aristotle, there is no knowledge prior to sense experience as all knowledge come through the senses. These were the opposing philosophical models before Galileo inverted scientism and Rene Descartes’ the mind – body dualism. In this paper, we have adopted John Dewey’s stand that philosophy ought to provide a methodology for the analysis of experience.

A person’s knowledge of the world can be gained either from scientific experience or philosophical experience or mystical experience. Any such knowledge, no matter how it is gained, is a product of each person’s particular point of view, his experience of the world. Without this individual point of view or experience the symbols of science would be meaningless. The whole universe of science is built upon the world as it is directly experienced. If therefore we wish to subject science to rigorous scrutiny and arrive at precise assessment of its meaning and scope, we must begin by re-awakening the basic experience of the world of which science is second-order expression. The universe of science is constructed upon the lived world – upon experience.

The challenge of philosophy today is to renew its passion for clarity and its traditional pursuit of leading man to his good. The scientific revolution beginning from Copernicus through Darwin has given man the atomic bombs, space-stops, automobile test-tube babies etc. Today, this same scientific revolution constitutes a challenge to human experience a challenge to human integrity, a challenge to the relationship between man and nature. Philosophy becomes irrelevant if it does not recognize the fundamental problem of working out a new conception of the relationship experience and nature.

Modern science has created a New World of our own making over which we are rapidly losing control. Obsessed with the determination to mechanize all, aspects of human life and possible create heaven here on earth, science has unleashed a hell of dehumanization. Man is steadily becoming a robot, a machine; no experience, no emotions, no values. Even if we agree that science is a mechanism of discovery and control, it must assert that scientific disclosures about nature tell us next to nothing about how man should be moral. Science reveals the facts of nature but it is philosophy that deals with values. Society will disintegrate if philosophy fails in its role of providing the ends of human actions and activities.

Philosophers in the new millennium must challenge the advocates of scientism that whatever they do, they must develop and utilize energy systems, which must recycle their products back into nature, otherwise science will destroy nature. Science has failed and is indeed unable to create values, Science cannot determine values since scientific knowledge can (at best) find out only what is the case, it can by its very nature never tell what ought to be, philosophy must exercise its role of critic and interpreter of scientific/social revolutions.

By providing a methodology, philosophy enables man to escape the narrow scientific concept of nature and embrace a human concept of man and nature.

Conclusion: The Globalization Challenges of Contemporary Philosophy

There are issues that perennially present themselves as foraging to philosophical investigation. However, control to these issues is the question about the origin and meaning of life. Shifting existential terrain has put the issue that deals with experience and nature on the front burners of philosophical inquiry. In the new millennium, culture, in all that it entails (religious mystic experience, social systems experience, and scientific experience), presents itself as the ground-file of philosophy. The challenges are to know and tell ourselves the truth about our cultural heritage and to consciously pioneer the nursing of a culture that we can gladly hand-on to posterity. This job demands the zealous dedication characteristic of missionary service. For our continued existence and self-identity as individuals and a people hang on the good we discover, preserve and propagate, as well as on the evil we speedily identify and flush out of our culture.

Thanks to the forces of globalization this philosophical mission bears a ring of urgency. Effective communication technology has made us aware of how tiny our earth is. The good news is the idea of a global village. The sad news, however, is that only those who join the mono-cultural-capitalism train may catch the globalization fever.

This paper has shown through a brief critical historical review how philosophy has been and continues to be an interpretative response to life as it is lived. The clarion call to philosophers is to rise up now in investigative arms to illumine the globalist field of experience and checkmate its threat to the well being of human beings.


Frederick Copleston: A History of Philosophy Harper & Row, 1970.

Galileo “Assayer” in Discoveries & Opinions of Galileo, N. Y. Doubleday.

Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason, New York, Anchor, 1966.

James Rachels & Frank: A Tillman Philosophical Issues. Harper & Row, Philosophers, 1972.

John Dewey: Experience & Nature, Open Court III, 1971.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: The Phenomenology of Perception. Humanities Press, 1962.

Renes Descartes: ‘The Meditations’ in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, Cambridge U. Press, 1912.

Thomas Acquinas: Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk 1, Chapters 3 – 13). Summa Theology, Part 1, Question 2, London, Burns & Quotes.

Our Motto: "United in Research for Positive Change", summarizes the objectives of this great institution. IRI is an international organization that is registered (RC1621015) under the Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Contact Info


© 2021 Igwebuike Research Institute